The Apple’s WorldWide Developer’s Conference (WWDC) that took place on Monday, June 22nd of this year was a historic one in a fundamental way. Tim Cook, finally, after years of speculation, announced the shift of Apple Macs from Intel chips to chips of its own. Do note, that neither Tim Cook, nor do I mention ARM as the chipset here. The reason behind it is that Apple does not use ARM chip designs the same as other companies (Qualcomm, Huawei, Samsung, MediaTek and others). They simply license the ARM instruction sets and then create their own custom designs for their Silicon, be it the extremely power efficient S series chips for Apple Watches, or the powerful A series SOCs for iPhones and iPads.
So, just the way, 15 years ago, when Steve Jobs announced the move from PowerPCs to x86 Intel Based platforms, he simply mentioned it as a move to Intel, and not x86. This made everyone recognize the paradigm shift easily due to the Branding Intel had compared to “x86”; Tim Cook followed Jobs’ footsteps labelling it as the move to Apple Silicon considering the branding of their chips inside their devices rather than ARM.
Tim Cook has announced a timeline for the Apple Silicon transition in a two-year period. Starting now, Developers have the option to obtain a Mac Mini with the A12Z Bionic chip combined with 16 Gigs of RAM which would help them re-develop/re-compile their Applications and software for them to be ready once the first consumer device running on Apple Silicon hits the market, which has been announced to be by the end of this year itself. Most probably, the new device could be an iPad like ultra-light MacBook (like the now discontinued 12” Retina MacBook) and a hope that it could be a MacBook Pro or an iMac as an homage to the previous PowerPC to Intel transition.
Tim Cook did mention that Apple still has some new Intel based Macs in its pipeline and Apple would continue to release versions of MacOS beyond the currently released Big Sur and would support the Intel platform for years to come. Considering that the move from PowerPCs to Intel was announced in 2005, the last OSX to release for PowerPC was released in 2007, PowerPC macs then reached vintage status in 2011 (six years into the announcement) and finally, it was given an Obsolete status with no support in 2013. Eight years that the platform was continued to be supported after the shift. A similar sort of support structure is to be expected for the current and upcoming Intel based Macs.
Why is the transition needed?
A decade and a half ago when Steve Jobs explained the PowerPC to Intel transition, it all came down to this. Apple wanted to make Macs that they could not simply make using what they had available from PowerPC nor did PowerPC have that sort of technology or finesse in their roadmap. With the Intel to Apple Silicon transition, the reason behind it is the same – there are Macs Apple wants to develop but simply cannot because of the current state of Intel silicon and the roadmap of Intel.
A big part of the same is performance efficiency – which is measured in the form of Performance per watt. The faster a chip goes, the more power it consumes and thus, the more heat it releases. What that means is that the speed of the chip is curtailed by the power and the heat in specific enclosures like the Laptop/iMac sized spaces.
Back then, compared to PowerPCs, Intel was blowing out of the park when it came to performance per watt, but right now, it is massively behind schedule. The efficiency and the power today are dependent on the sizes of the nodes on the chipsets. Intel was stuck on 14nm process for so long that when it is bringing in 10nm process finally onboard its chipsets, Apple already is on 7nm process on their A13 chips and the next chipset is projected to be at 5nm.
Apple for years had to take the heat from the consumers when it came to the performance of Intel’s chips inside their MacBook and iMac line-ups due to this exact same reason. Considering that iPad Pro has even tighter space constraints, and still the A12Z Bionic chip inside literally blows the MacBook’s core i5 and i7 chipsets out when it comes to its blazing fast performance is a testament of the prowess of Apple when it comes to its silicon; and it makes it obvious for Apple to finally ditch Intel in favour of its own silicon.
Apple has managed to ship a new A series processors for their iPhones every year right on schedule for the last decade, it went 64 bit before the competition, added secure enclaves, switched to custom GPUs, added neural engines, custom controllers, and created even more graphically powerful variants for iPads. This is the difference that the independence in creating your own roadmap makes over the dependency on Intel that kept Macs lagging behind their own iPhone and iPad line-up.
An analogy that makes the perfect sense while explaining this is that a Bakery makes fresh bread everyday not because people shop every day, but because any day you decide to shop, you would want that bread to be fresh. Intel has not managed to ensure Mac customers to get the best processors every year. Compare that to the growth Apple has made in its own silicon prowess with tiny 10 core Audio processors for AirPods to industry lapping A12Z and A13 processors. Apart from that, Intel has not managed to support things like 5K displays, Touch IDs, and h.265 encoding, and Apple had to create custom chips to work in tandem with Intel chips to make all of this work.
Why is Apple ahead compared to the industry?
A big part of this comes with the fact that when Apple is developing the processors, the customer for the same is Apple itself. Compare that to Intel and Qualcomm, where the customers are other device manufacturers, they have to support multiple customers, and with every customer having different needs, it becomes heavily expensive. That is one of the main reasons we can see Qualcomm has literally not been able to make watch chips, and it has taken a while for AMD to be able to fund GPUs that are competitive with Nvidia again.
Apple doesn’t have to care about making money on the chips when they have to focus more on making money on the entire device. That means they do not have to leave old technology on the shelves just to recoup as much as possible from those technologies (which Intel and Qualcomm have been doing for a long while; thus hurting the consumers in the long run).
What does it mean for the new users?
Seeing the performance that the A series has bought to the iPhone and iPad line-up, it wouldn’t be hard to think of SOCs designed for the new Macs to have better embedded graphics, Secure Enclaves, Neural Cores, Machine Learning accelerators, cryptographic accelerators, audio cores, Image Signal Processors, unified memory, display controllers, and Apple’s secret sauce for a long time – performance controllers.
Since now, there would be no need for separate T2 chips on Macs anymore, nor would there be a need to pay Intel an overhead, this would result in better, simpler, and much more value for money Macs in the future.
The performance already seems to be pretty well optimized considering the demos Craig and his team showed in WWDC. They showed Microsoft’s Office suite and Adobe Creative Cloud suite running completely native on the new architecture, and on an iPad chip, fluently. They even showed Apple’s first party software like Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X ready for the transition. And apart from that, they even demoed Maya, a high-end 3D software package and even a AAA Game title – Shadow of the Tomb Raider running fluently on a chip made for iPad. Extrapolating that to the future desktop and notebook chips on the same architecture only means wonders and performance galore.
The future of Apple is here, and with this, Intel has lost the only company that exclusively used their processors for their notebooks (considering brands like Dell, Asus, Acer, and HP have already moved their flagship performance notebooks over to AMD).